It’s a shame so few ’70s trends were the subjects of full-length documentaries, because it would be thrilling to explore definitive vintage docs on, say, disco, est, pet rocks, roller derby, and other wild subjects. Hell, even two of the most commercialized pop-culture phenomena of the ’70s, daredevil Evel Knievel and rock band Kiss, lack full-length nonfiction explorations from back in the day. The reason for this preamble is to set appropriate expectations for the sports-themed doc Funny Car Summer. Had every ’70s fad earned an in-depth exploration, Funny Car Summer would be disposable. Things being as they are, those eager to explore as many facets of the ’70s as possible make do with what’s available. In that context, Funny Car Summer is okay. It’s got some period flavor, and the slice-of-life scenes capture a bit of what it must have felt like to live in Squaresville, USA, during the longhair era.
That said, how much you’ll dig this picture ultimately depends on how interesting you find drag racing. And, frankly, even the film’s treatment of its main subject might not be enough to hold your attention. As some disgruntled viewers note on IMDb, they saw this picture as car-crazy kids and were bitterly disappointed that racing footage comprises only a small portion of the picture’s running time. In lieu of shots on the track, most of the film concerns the day-to-day existence of professional drag racer Jim Dunn and his family. In a word, he’s boring, a dad with a colorful hobby. Documentarian Ron Phillips obviously spent a lot of time tracking Dunn’s competitive activities and family life, but Phillips was not rewarded for his investment. In the picture’s most absurd sequence, which is also the one revealing how little slam-bang material Phillips collected, the picture cuts between Dunn shaving and his wife, Pat, doing housework. Set to a cornball ballad with lyrics to the effect of “where would you be without me,” the scene trudges along for several pointless minutes.
Not everything in Funny Car Summer is quite so dispiriting. While insufficient for purposes of entertainment, the racetrack shots are pretty good, especially when Phillips turns his camera onto fans and novelty vehicles. And though juicing crash shots with melodramatic music was unnecessary, the appearance of dynamic visuals helps rouse the movie from its stupor. Some perverse rep-house programmer would be wise to screen Funny Car Summer in tandem with the equally low-energy Derby (1971), about roller derby, just to see how many attendees could make it through both movies without falling asleep.
Funny Car Summer: FUNKY